The Cambridge house was built in 1837-8 at a location close to North Street, presently Massachusetts Ave, and presided over several acres near Porter Square, the first train station outside of Boston. It's first owner was Henry Potter, whose firm owned the Stock Yards and live cattle operation at Porter Square, where the term 'Porter Steak' originated. The original 6000 sq ft mansion was accompanied by several sheds, stables, and barns, but as traffic on North Street increased and became noisy, the house was moved. Newspaper accounts from the 1890 era describe how the stable was moved to the rear of the property and enlarged into a house, and the main mansion was set back to the present location, whence a new house was built on the (noisy) former site.
After the 60 year old mansion was moved to a fine new foundation, it was re-decorated inside and out according to then-current taste. Thus the Greek-Revival exterior had numerous medallions and decorations affixed, the porches had keyhole arches attached, and many small window panes were replaced with large glass panes. This creates a structure that does not conform to the norms of any period, since the result is much too elaborate for Greek Revival tastes, but the house lacks the vertical architecture and specific features (towers, tall windows) normal in the true Victorians in the neighborhood.
At about the same time, gardens were planted, and a small roadway to the rear of the property was added, opening to two rear houses. This was called Potter Park, suggesting that the property should always be known for its gardens. An elaborate fenced rose garden was established, and the old roses survive till today as enormous rose hedges. They are floribundas and create great arches of breathtaking roses in June.
Some of the roses have grown to the second floor and frame the windows of the red parlor. They are spectacular and fragrant from inside and out.
Inside, bathrooms and plumbing were added, gas and electricity were installed, and central heat obseleted the handsome carved marble fireplaces. The household was maintained by 7 servants, four of whom lived on the third floor and three of whom were day-commuters. After the move, the interior was given an incredible makeover inspired by the Beaux Art ideal, and the house is known today by the Cambridge Historical Commission as the most elaborate Victorian in the City. This interior work was of the highest caliber, and survives in excellent condition.
The entire 40 foot frontage of the house is a double parlor where my wife Jane Struss, gives voice lessons and where we frequently have music parties. These events originate as final dress rehearsals for performances elsewhere, or as fund raisers for music groups, but are always an ultimate Victorian music experience. Note on the pictures how the elaborate gilded pelmets over the windows merge with the crown over the pier glass mirrors and reflect the elaborate gilded chandeliers. Similar decorations in the second parlor reflect back the reflection, producing the infinite reflections of the beaux art ballroom. We use one parlor as the 'stage' and the other for the audience of 30.
The red parlor is dominated by a gilded mirror over the marble fireplace. An elaborate beamed ceiling is divided into 24 3-foot squares, each featuring a fine plaster rose. The bedrooms on the second floor were equally elaborate, and the floor is dominated by a conservatory with curved paneled ceilings and Corinthian columns, visible from outside through the prism cut windows.
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Christmas in Cambridge is blatantly an excuse to decorate with abandon because the house is already so elaborate it cannot be undone. It takes a 12 foot tree to fill the double parlor music rooms, and nobody can figure out how a house with no kids can become so full of elegantly wrapped presents. We find that a basic tree lighting of white lights with 2 strings of gold lights intermixed gives a traditional look with a subtle color depth.
The other side of the double parlor is filled with pointsettias and other flowers to enliven an already splendid decor. Notice how the two rooms are identical in basic decor but very differently furnished; one is the music room with piano, and the other is the sitting room.
We have been luckey to find some elegant and elaborately carved antique Chinese cabinets. These pieces were fancily carved for wealthy merchants, and immediately despised by the intellectuals, who insisted that they were too cluttered for a clear mind, but who also could not afford them.
The front door sets the tone for visitors - Christmas freaks live here. For many years, Jane has complained of gaudy Christmas displays in some yards, with the remark, "I would just buy a million dollar house and put a wreath on the front door." So guess what I did, in the name of domestic tranquility.
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